The last chance for social Europe?


Picture of Luca Visentini
Luca Visentini

General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)

Luca Visentini is General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)

For many years, ‘the values of the European Union’ represented a beacon of fairness and social progress, with a powerful influence on neighbouring countries and even further afield.

But things started to change with the financial crisis in 2008. In some member states the eurozone’s ‘economic governance’ regulators began to impose punitive measures that by-passed democratic authorities, and the process of upward economic and social convergence stopped in the newer member states.

The results are well-known: growing anger and hostility towards the EU across Europe, giving rise to an illusory desire to ‘take back control’ at national level – culminating in the Brexit debacle.

In the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), we have been warning of this spreading malaise for years. People are fed up with seeing their living and working conditions in freefall, coupled with a sense that decision-makers are not listening. Back in the days of Jacques Delors, European Commission president from 1985 to 1995, if social Europe stood for one thing it was hope.

We demanded proof that the EU was doing something for workers and their families. So, when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced plans for a ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ in September 2015, we welcomed the initiative – and waited to see what it would mean.

The Commission finally announced its package of measures in April 2017.

Many of the proposals were long overdue, and in line with our long-standing demands. But overall the Social Pillar was not as ambitious and concrete as trade unions wanted.

The Social Pillar certainly does not encompass everything trade unions want, but it must not be strangled at birth

We must now reinforce the momentum towards genuine upward convergence, making concrete improvements for working people in Europe. Much depends on the Commission, but not everything: member states must play their role by refraining from objecting in the name of subsidiarity, and instead build together a stronger European social model.

On content, the draft legislation on paid parental, paternity and carers’ leave is very positive and much-needed, although it is regrettable that it does not yet improve protection against dismissal for mothers returning from maternity leave. The lack of willingness of some employers to negotiate should not stop the Commission from taking the legislative initiative. Trade unions would be supportive.

With more and more Europeans forced into precarious and low-quality jobs, the ETUC also supports the introduction of standards to protect self-employed and atypical workers.

In its Spring Economic Forecast, the Commission recognised that divergences between member states’ economies are still much too wide, allowing social dumping to threaten jobs and undermine wages. Too many people are making do with part-time work when they actually need a full-time job. They are getting by in the gig economy or on zero-hour contracts.

We welcome the planned revision of the Written Statement Directive obliging employers to inform workers of their contractual rights; and the proposal for Access to Social Protection for All will be crucial in securing the right to a decent standard of living for everyone in Europe.

The Social Pillar is a strong signal, but still faces formidable obstacles. Many of the proposed measures will need to be applied by national governments. And we have already seen employers’ reactions embodied in BusinessEurope’s ill-judged hostility to stronger parental rights. Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen herself estimated that enabling more women to join the labour market could save the EU up to €370bn a year, making an important contribution to growth.

The Social Pillar certainly does not encompass everything trade unions want, but it must not be strangled at birth, and we will fight to make it stronger and see it grow to maturity. We are ready to engage in consultation on these proposals, since social dialogue will be crucial to their success, and we invite all employers’ organisations to join us.

The EU is much maligned, yet remains a unique and remarkable model of international cooperation

The pillar must apply across the whole of the EU. Any move to restrict it to the eurozone or a small group of ‘the willing’ would worsen existing inequalities. Indeed, the Commission has confirmed that the formal proclamation of the pillar at the end of the year will implicate all 28 member states, since the United Kingdom will still be part of the EU.

In mid-May, as part of her general election campaign, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a Tory government would introduce a raft of new rights for workers. Could it be that she recognises the potential backlash if workers in post-Brexit Britain found themselves left behind and denied the benefits promised across 27 member states?

There is not a moment to lose. The election of pro-EU President Emmanuel Macron in France has given Europe some breathing space, by avoiding the risk of further defections from the Union for the time being.

But the Commission must act rapidly on its pledge to enforce existing European social legislation and rights, and indicate how it means to implement the Social Pillar and more generally the social dimension of Europe. The EU is still in danger of reaching a tipping point which would put continued support from Europeans out of reach.

In the meantime the EU is on the road to economic recovery, and growth is on the rise. Workers must also benefit, yet all the evidence shows that inequalities are growing. That is why the ETUC has launched a major campaign for investment for quality-job creation and for #ourpayrise across the EU, demanding that workers’ salaries also recover their value.

The clock is ticking. The EU is much maligned, yet remains a unique and remarkable model of international cooperation. It is well worth saving, but that can only be done if it puts social rights at its heart.

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